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Africa

Bombs and starvation in Sudan

Khartoum's warplanes have been regularly bombing civilian targets in the Nuba mountains. The border region close to South Sudan is controlled by rebels and most humanitarian aid groups have left.

It is Saturday morning and members of the local Catholic church choir from Gidel parish are seated on wooden benches under the shade of a tree. They are rehearsing for the next day's service. Gidel is situated in Sudan's Nuba mountains, not far from the border with South Sudan. The young men and women are focused on their singing, following the conductor's every gesture. Unusually for them, their eyes are not constantly raised to the skies above. They are concentrating on every note.

Normally, they are watching out for Mig-29 fighter jets and Antonov transport planes on bombing runs. For more than a year now, the Nuba mountains have been turned into a conflict zone. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has been ordering his air force to attack his own population. The reason is that the region is now controlled by the opposition Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N ).

Air raids drive workers off the fields

Barabas Kuku is the SPLM-N representative in Gidel. He says he is "trying to solve some of the people's problems." Sitting at his desk in a hut, he says many want to flee to Yida, which is just across the border in South Sudan. Others want to go even further south. Or to Kenya, or somewhere even further away. But if they are not carrying the right documents, which Barabas Kuku has to sign, then the refugees are stopped by the rebels at one of the numerous road blocks and sent back.

Man in cave in Tongole, Nuba mountains, Sudan: Picture: Bettina Rühl

Caves offer limited protection against Sudanese bombs

Thousands have fled the region in recent months, because it isn't possible to survive in the Nuba mountains anymore. The bombers seem to be deliberately targeting people who are waiting at wells for water or watching their herds. The victims include many women and children. And because people tilling the fields have also been killed or wounded by bombs, nobody wants to take their place out in the open. Local agriculture suffers as a consequence. The population is going hungry and international relief aid cannot get into the area because President Omar al-Bashir has closed the only road that leads out of Sudan and into the mountains. He has effectively blocked all forms of humanitarian aid and almost all aid organizations have left anyway because of the bombing.

"If it is not napalm..."

Only a few priests and nuns from the El Obeid diocese remain in the area. The diocese runs a hospital in Gidel. 300 beds have been squeezed into premises which were built for 80. Lying on one of the beds is 22-year-old Malda. Her face, arms and legs have been badly burned. "I was hit by a bomb," she explains, while trying to move her facial muscles as little as possible. "I was in my hut when the planes came. I tried to find cover with my children, but is was too late." Both her children died instantly.

A youth with a bowl of wild leaves. Picture: Bettina Rühl

Nourishment comes from wiid vegetation, the air raids have made work in the fields too dangerous

Standing at Malda's bedside is Tom Catena, a US doctor. He is one of the few foreign nationals who have refused to leave despite the bombing. Recently, he has had to treat several patients with burns similar to Malda's. The doctor is convinced that these incendiary bombs are not conventional weapons. "If it is not napalm, then it is something very similar," he says. "Perhaps there is an additional ingredient which causes a huge ball of flame when the bomb explodes." This is the only explanation the doctor has for the terrible burns on his patients. The pattern of their injuries is always the same - burns to the face, both arms, both legs and the back. Eight-year-old Cholda is in the children's ward. He is covered with third degree burns. There is no skin anymore, just raw flesh. Nine-year-old Djaila is another air raid victim. She has been paralysed from the legs down since she was hit by shrapnel while fetching water from a well. 15-year-old Daniel Omar was hit while watching the herd. He lost both arms. All of the wounded are civilians.

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